When I conjure up a vision of Queen Elizabeth II I see also two other former heads of states, Jomo Kenyatta and Mahatma Gandhi. Kenyatta and Gandhi were heads of state despite the efforts of the British institutions governing them. Blood was spilled. I recoil at the false proposition that the end of the British Empire, the longest surviving and richest Empire, was bloodless. For Kenyans and Indians, there were victims, reprisals, in some cases torture. (1)
America, an imperial force in kind, but not in kind a colonizer, should know. America stood by as Kenyans and Indians suffered. Remind ourselves that one of the few successful economic American boycotts of a foreign government — not an American pastime — was against apartheid in South Africa, which, like Kenya and India, was a British Commonwealth member.
You ask, why bring this up now?
It’s simple, really. I turned the page: “Empires” follows “Elizabeth” in my world history encyclopedia.
Her rhetoric posture was at once confounding and gracious. Joan Rivers, who bolstered a stand-up career mimicking the Queen’s appearance and persona, was greeted by the Queen at a Buckingham Palace soiree with a noteworthy salutation:
In England, did you know (Joan) that you are more popular than me? To which Rivers replied to the Queen’s amusement, “Well, off with my head!”
‘The Queen’ was like that, self-effacing on a personal level, canny when tradition and presentation demanded.
Even the neighbors liked her. (2)
She filled the stage made for her but without her participation. She acted as if she inherited a sense of the public. This is called “improvising.” And Elizabeth with editors at the ready did it regularly. Her tempo was strikingly awkward yet fetching.
Low hanging fruit for Rivers’ mimicry.
In 1997 according to the self-aggrandizing Fleet Street tabloids, Elizabeth miffed an opportunity to honor Diana’s passing. By refusing to lower the flag at Buckingham Palace, which would violate a tradition, ironically the Queen made a grief space for Diana’s public, and Prince Charles’ too. PM Tony Blair consulted, adeptly arbitrating the “situation.” Deliberately, thus it seemed, the Queen returned from Balmoral Castle, her summer residence, publicly pronounced the family’s grief and visited with mourners at her doorstep.
The flag flew at full mast, but Elizabeth bestowed ‘Queen’ for a fortnight on Diana. Millions mourned her passing. After Diana, there were no longer ‘Princes and Princesses,’ just “royals” with a lowercase ‘r.’
Not one for pictures — the Queen had rules — she managed poignant signature moments. The Royal Garden poses with knighted Sir David Attenborough come to mind.
As well the photos of her peering tenuously out of ornate coach windows. ‘The Queen’ showing up. Relentlessly did she fulfill this role, up to two days before her death when she welcomed Liz Truss, the newest PM and a former anti-monarchist.
Queen Elizabeth, still filling stages not her own.
Within the same fortnight, the world also witnessed the passing of a former Head of State who like Elizabeth presided over and survived the end of an empire —Mikhail Gorbachev, who summed up his tenure:
For all the mistakes, miscalculations — or, on the contrary, for all the great leaps — we accomplished the main preparatory political and human work…In this sense, it will never be possible to turn society back. (3)
This past week, the world attended the passings perhaps of the last ‘rational monarchists.’ The new yokes of oppression derive currently not from monarchists and empires but from autocracies posing as democracies, post-rational mindsets and disaffected tribes.
A world devoid of neighbors.
See also “Misremembering the British Empire”
2-Stephen Castle, “Balmoral, a Beloved Retreat, Becomes a Site of Pilgrimage,” NYTimes, Sept. 10
3-Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Reformist Soviet Leader, Is Dead at 91